Africa in slow motion on two little wheels

JOHANNESBURG Mon Jun 10, 2013 7:17pm IST

1 of 5. Reuters correspondent Agnieszka Flak points to an elephant approaching her along the highway north of Nata in Botswana, during her 9,000-km (5,600-mile) scooter trip from Johannesburg to Dar es Salaam and back, in this picture taken January 6, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Alberto Rinaldi

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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - It sounded like a shotgun: bang, bang, bang. The back wheel swirled in a slalom and my Vespa scooter came to an abrupt stop.

Not even halfway through my two-wheeled trip across parts of Africa and the back tire burst. I steered away from the traffic that trailed behind me on this pothole-littered mountain pass, just as a truck gently nudged my back license plate.

The 200 kg (440 lb) piled on the seat, two carriers and between my legs were too much for the seasoned two-wheeler and I got stuck: on top of a mountain in Tanzania's Baobab Valley, surrounded by baboons, possibly lions, and without a spare.

The scooter safari began in Johannesburg, where I strapped an adventurous friend, a tent, some medicine, food and extra fuel to the frame. My goal was to go Dar es Salaam and back, passing six countries of southern and east Africa on the way.

Four weeks later, I was spitting dust, dead insects were plastered to my helmet and teeth, and my wind-swept face was burning after weeks in the sun's glare.

But the satisfaction of crossing more than 9,000 km (5,600 miles) of Africa on a motor scooter was sweet as well - the best part being able to say: 'I have arrived... alive'.

Nobody took me seriously when I initially took off. Touring by truck, car, campervan, even motorcycle isn't that unusual. But striking out across sub-Saharan Africa on a scooter astounded many of the people I met along the way.

"Where is your vehicle?" a policeman asked at a checkpoint, slightly confused when hearing of my destination. He could not stop laughing once I pointed to the wheels I was sitting on.

Others questioned my driving as I ventured into areas where female drivers are rare and those on a scooter unheard of.

"Ma'am, where do you think you are going with this THING? Can I see your license?," I would get asked.

They would often ask my male passenger if he wasn't afraid to be driven by a woman.

LIONS AND BUFFALO

Driving during the rainy season is quite a wet affair and I would get drenched, slide in the mud, dry off in the wind to get soaked at least twice more that same day.

My pledge to never ride at night was broken most days, with the scooter struggling to get to the next point in time and street lights and signs scarce. Growls and hisses followed the sound of my engine, while I strained to see ahead with my tiny headlight.

"Aren't you afraid of the lions and buffalo ma'am?," a guard asked in a whispery tone at the entrance to the Mikumi National Park in Tanzania, pointing a flashlight at my face.

That was enough to make me insist on camping outside the park and far from the "DANGER" sign posted right at its gate.

At least eight hours on the road each day and I would collapse at night, with barely any strength left to unstrap luggage, light a cooker and set up the tent.

Each day was a gamble: if I would make it to the next fuel station in time or if the petrol I bought would last me for 120 km or only half of that, if diluted, as happened many times.

My tires burst two more times and, eventually, I had four sturdier ones shipped from South Africa and the trip continued.

The bureaucracy was maddening. Besides visas and a carnet to pass through border posts, I was back to the counters to fork out cash for insurance, road and carbon tax on top of that.

At the next checkpoint I would be told there was one more paper I did not have, and negotiations would begin once more.

At 151 cc, my engine should have been strong enough to push at over 100 km/h, but an average 60 km/h was all I managed, sometimes crawling up steep hills at barely a third of that.

MANGOES

But moving at a snail's pace left me time to take it all in: from the mines dotting the scenery of South Africa, the herds of zebras and elephants crossing the one-lane highway in Botswana, the anti-AIDS slogans covering murals in Zambia to the bush fire smoke in Mozambique encroaching on the road ahead of me.

Heads turned when I passed villages or towns. Whenever I stopped to refuel and stretch my legs, children would run out to sell me juicy mangoes or ask for a treat.

The tempo changed with each border crossing, especially when I swapped east Africa's bustle of people, carts, and towns for the calmer shores of Lake Malawi.

Over the 400 km I tried to cover each day, the chaos of capitals would soon be forgotten as I passed by enclaves of mud huts around rice fields, sugar estates and coffee plantations.

Driving an overloaded two-wheeler in Africa may not be the safest way to get around. But I felt right at home elbowing my way in-between carts pulled by donkeys stacked with goods, buses with animals strapped to their roofs or cyclists carrying five people and dozens of jerry cans, all at the same time.

Seeing me sitting aboard something slightly bigger than a bicycle encouraged locals to approach me or invite me for tea and a tour of their homes and huts, as once happened in Mozambique.

Motorcyclists would honk. A group in biker leathers even asked to pose for a picture so "they could show their wives".

Some may still say a Vespa is not well geared for African roads, but the locals I met along the way were quite impressed.

"I'll give you my car for this scooter," said Elijah, a Zimbabwean I met at the Zambian border. After a second he added: "If a car is not enough, how about 20 cows?"

If you're interested in reading more about this adventure please read the blog at: here

(Editing by Paul Casciato)

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